In this regular Sunday feature, we ask people about 10 things that changed their life. This week, Theresa Breslin, OBE, author.

1. Joining the library

ONE of my earliest memories is of joining the library which, at that time, was a big old house in the local park near where I lived. I was a voracious reader yet no one ever said to me that I could be a writer.

My hometown, Kirkintilloch, was a fort on the Antonine Wall – one of the furthest northern points settled by the Roman Empire. The fort was right next to the library and in the Middle Ages a castle was built on the same site.

As a child, this sense of being surrounded by history exhilarated me and looking at the artefacts left behind by our ancestors was fascinating. I imagined the Syrian archers shivering as they guarded the Roman Wall while snow blew across from the Campsie Hills, and the soldiers on the castle barricades peering down in the dusk at the campfires of their enemies. It was even more exciting when I learned that a bag of ancient coins had been found in the park!

On my way to the library, I always kept a sharp lookout for the glint of silver or gold in the hope of finding a hidden hoard. I never did. But, when I look back now, I see that I did plunder a huge mass of treasure. Not crowns or precious jewels, but the books I browsed and borrowed to read.

The non-fiction books took me, by word and picture, up mountains, through jungles and over oceans.

I decided that when I grew up, I’d be an explorer and travel to these places. The fiction wrapped me in other worlds: stories of boarding schools, dragons and daring deeds, mystery and magic, and tales of kings and queens and castles.

2. Story time

MY primary school days were filled with lots of dragons – some of them very unfriendly indeed! Education seemed to be about regimentation and rote learning, with staid language and literature which did not connect to me.

One of the reasons I love visiting schools and enjoy creative writing sessions with young people is the great satisfaction of watching the enabling process as they articulate their experiences and take ownership of their language.

When I was in primary school the one shining star which sent a shaft of light into my mind and my heart was the teacher who used the last hour on a Friday afternoon to share stories.

We had this amazing teacher who would read out to the class, week after week, chapters from longer, more difficult books.

When the book was finished, another fabulous adventure would begin. We were allowed to put our heads on our desks, to close our eyes and rest, and even the most hyperactive child would pause to listen.

And so I fled through Highland glens with David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart, tended the secret garden of Mary Lennox and Dickon Sowerby, collected thimbles for Arrietty Clock and The Boy, explored a far-away island in the company of Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver and Ben Gunn and jousted at tournaments in the castles of Ivanhoe, Lady Rowena and Rebecca. I’m sure this gave me a sense of narrative, of the musicality of language and embedded story structure.

3. My parents

FEW of the books in school or the library reflected my life as I was living it. There was almost no representation of my situation, no one spoke my language or told my jokes. I never found myself in a book. The children I read about owned ponies, had a cook and gardener and went on sailing holidays.

Here I must acknowledge the massive debt I owe to my parents for, despite a low income, my childhood home was full of books: non-fiction on every topic and also a wide range of fiction. I loved traditional folk and faerie tales, fables, myths and legends, stories of all kinds, plays and poetry.

My father had a good memory for poems and would recite these to amuse his children. The family favourite, often acted out by myself and my brother and sisters, was Lord Ullin’s Daughter by Thomas Campbell. Fleeing from the wrath of the girl’s father, Lord Ullin says: “And fast before her father’s men,
Three days we’ve fled together,
For should he find us in the glen,
My blood would stain the heather.”

In school we recited poetry according to the set texts the teachers taught and I can still now recall most of The Daffodils.

No disrespect to Mr Wordsworth (and I grew to love his Ode On Intimations Of Immortality from Recollections On Early Childhood) but when you are nine years old there really is no contest between “dancing daffodils” and “blood on the heather”.

I now realise the debt I owe to my parents and our extended family as because of them I am familiar with the brilliant poetry of Burns and the literature of my heritage.

4. The big school

The National:

SECONDARY school opened up a whole new world of science experiments (probably now banned under present-day health and safety!) and truly inspirational history and English teachers who probably went off-piste in the curriculum.

I was not particularly studious and dates in history eluded me. I was more interested in the stories and have to say that Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy served me well for filling in the gaps. Reading of kings’ lady loves certainly made dry dates and boring treaties a lot more interesting.

We were exposed to a wide range of literature, essays, plays and poems. My secondary school encouraged creative writing, produced a school magazine, ran drama groups, put on plays and took pupils to the theatre – the latter being an absolute highlight of my school life. I’ll never forget Macbeth at the Citizens. These activities encouraged and developed a life-long love of story, produced in all its forms.

5. Being a librarian

The National:

ON leaving school I started my career in librarianship with Glasgow Public Libraries. At that time the Mitchell Library was the largest reference library in western Europe and most of the stock was in closed access (known as “the stack”) and arranged by acquisition number.

This meant that the oldest books were several floors and a lot of corridors distant from the main reading room, with the most recently published/acquired books closest to the front desk.

There was a quaint system of ordering and fetching books via dumbwaiters and pulleys with staff posted on different levels of the building.

The stock was catalogued in incredibly ancient catalogues, including a system known as the Guard Books, where strips of paper with the book details written or typed on were pasted into tall ledgers. Seriously. Bob Cratchit would have been quite at home!

The whole atmosphere entranced me. There was a strong room as the Mitchell has some rare materials such as John James Audubon’s Birds Of America, the world’s most expensive printed book, and what the staff referred to as the “Sin Bin”, where certain types of publications were kept. Hmmm... best leave that well alone.

I worked in the branch libraries too, in a variety of locations across Glasgow, including one containing the city’s braille book collection. After a few brief weeks of starting work I knew that this was my dream job.

6. My first book

The National:

RETURNING to work after having my family I joined the Strathkelvin Writers’ Group. This was, and still is, an empathetic, supportive, creative-writing group covering all genres, with members at every stage and strata of writing.

By this time I was working for the local authority library services and remained there through reorganisation as it became East Dunbartonshire. At one point I was the mobile librarian which brings you very close to the people you serve.

I’d been involved with a local history project focusing on Gartcosh, one of the villages where the mobile library made a stop. The children interviewed the older residents and the library service bound up their accounts into a book.

Most of these people had come there many years previously to work in the steel mill and it was still the main source of employment. Not long after this, the steel mill was closed down.

I was prompted to write a story with a theme of how this closure would affect not only the lives of the adults, but also the children. As there was still a dearth of fiction relevant to modern Scottish children, I decided to create the story from a child’s point of view, with the humour of the young readers who visited my mobile library and to mirror the circumstances of present day Scotland where my own children were growing up. Simon’s Challenge was my first book. Thus, I became a writer. I think now I always was.

7. Winning the Fidler and Carnegie Medal

The National:

SIMON’S Challenge won the Kathleen Fidler Award for new writers and was filmed for television as a children’s drama. It was thrilling and enlightening to be on the film set and watch actors like Elaine C Smith and a very young Joe McFadden rehearse and perform.

The Fidler was life-changing for me. It gave me such a boost in confidence and set a pace for me to continue.

A few books later, other incidents from my library life came together to inspire me to write a book about a dyslexic boy. Whispers In The Graveyard won the Carnegie Medal. And that was a game-changer that raised my profile.

8. Divided City

THE infinitely enjoyable aspect of writing for young people is that you can write in every genre. This gave me, a person with absolutely no interest in football, the liberty to drag myself, notebook in hand, to sundry Rangers and Celtic football games.

Divided City is a book about prejudice, with themes of sectarianism and racism, but it is also a story about friendship and the nature of friendship.

A milestone moment was when the book was chosen for the One Book Community Reading Project in a cross-border peace project in Northern Ireland, funded by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation.

Then the truly terrifically talented team at the Citizens Theatre produced it for stage. During the City of Derry Year of Culture, I watched 300 pupils from across their communities take part in the musical theatre version of the book in a performance which moved me to tears.

9. The Armistice centenary

IN 2018, to mark the First World War Armistice centenary, the Imperial War Museums (IWM) chose three books set during that war and co-produced special commemorative editions containing notes from an archivist of IWM.

Remembrance was one of the books chosen and there were events linked to the centenary. I spoke at the Duxford Air Show where there was a fly-past accompanied by a historical commentary.

Watching the fragile biplanes and then the soaring Red Arrows made me realise it was only due to the sacrifice of others that I am able to write what I choose to write. This was re-enforced by a conversation I had with a redoubtable lady war veteran in the queue for the loo!

10. The Outstanding Achievement Award

THIS year I received the Scottish Book Trust Outstanding Achievement Award. This was an overwhelming experience and I consider the award also a tribute to my husband, Tom, and my wonderful family.

It seems to be that the keystones in my life begin with family and return to family. So, it’s appropriate in the year of this very special award that I return to the roots of my writing in my latest book. Those first seeds sown walking past the fort and the castle to reach the library culminated in travelling around Scotland visiting castles “looking for legends” as I researched stories.

The third Treasury in the series of Scottish Traditional Tales, illustrated by the magnificent artist Kate Leiper, is called An Illustrated Treasury Of Scottish Castle Legends.

I will be eternally grateful that, from an early age, I was imbued with narrative and a love of language.